Even today, more than 40 years later, Allen Kurzweil can feel the agony of the hot sauce he was forced to swallow by a roommate at boarding school. He’ll laugh a little at the absurdity of another indignity, a reenactment of the “Thirty-Nine Lashes” sequence from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” with him as the victim.
But it was another incident that really pushed Kurzweil, 54, a best-selling novelist, to launch an investigation into the hazing that has rattled around in his head for decades. In his new book, “Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully” — part memoir, part detective story — the author chronicles his quest to discover what happened to the boy who tormented him all those years ago. In the process, he uncovers the strange, sordid saga of a man who has been tyrannizing people his whole life.
During Kurzweil’s year in the early 1970s at Aiglon College, a traditional boarding school that attracts international students to the Swiss Alps, he endured routine harassment from a few fellow students led by a roommate with the imperial name Cesar Augustus. The teasing — Cesar called the undersize Jewish kid “Nosey” — and the physical abuse were distressing.
Far worse, however, Cesar was party to the theft of Kurzweil’s most beloved keepsake, a stainless steel Omega Seamaster wristwatch that had belonged to his father. Robert Kurzweil died of cancer when Allen was 5.
The loss of the watch left the boy “more than bereft,” he writes in “Whipping Boy.” “I felt annihilated.”
Looking back, he says, Kurzweil’s pursuit of the grown-up Cesar never would have happened if it weren’t for the emotional trauma of losing that symbolic connection to his father.
“The watch,” he says, “is my Rosebud.”
It’s not in Kurzweil’s nature to make himself the subject of a memoir. “I’m not very comfortable writing as if I’m on the couch,” he says, sitting, in fact, on the couch in his historic Providence house. Though born to parents from Vienna, Kurzweil says it never felt like his “geographical destiny” to psychoanalyze himself.
But the more he searched, “Whipping Boy” shifted focus from the victim to the antagonist. After several false starts trying to locate Cesar, a decade ago Kurzweil came across an article about a financial fraud case involving a colorful cast of characters. Posing as knights, princes, and barons, the group was found guilty of bilking investors out of millions of dollars with bogus promises of enormous, eight-figure loans. Cesar, as it happened, served as a “project consultant” for the white-collar-and-ascot crime ring, reeling in prospective clients.
Here was the lead Kurzweil had been seeking. He’d just written a children’s book featuring a nemesis called Hank the Tank, inspired in part by his own son’s grade-school run-ins with intimidating boys; now he’d uncovered a path to confront his own. Tapping the advice of lawyer friends and one high school classmate who had become a producer for Court TV, he traced the case to a New York law firm billed as the biggest in the nation.
The more details the writer uncovered, interviewing victims and securing access to mountains of evidence against the perpetrators, the more Kurzweil found himself drifting away from his own inquiry into the bullying he’d suffered. Conducting investigative reporting for the first time, he found the work to be “incredibly sexy. I realized the vocabulary of ‘Law and Order’ has to come from somewhere.”
He and his son, Max, gorged themselves on swindle movies, he says, and the bookshelf in Kurzweil’s third-floor writer’s lair now bulges with titles he sought obsessively: biographies of the Roman general Julius Caesar and the emperor Augustus, case studies like “The Psychopath Test” and “On Aggression,” even “Zen and the Art of Foosball” — his bully’s game of choice at Aiglon. It took some time to realize how far he was veering off track.
“The ‘dirty rotten scoundreldom’ of the fraud was stealing the thunder from the psychological dimensions of my inquiry,” Kurzweil says. “It was giving me an excuse to avoid the very questions I had to ask myself.”
In the end, after meeting in person with Cesar, at that point an ex-con trying to resurrect a life in San Francisco, Kurzweil pushed himself to find some closure. On their final meeting, he told Cesar he was writing a book about his quest to understand why he’d been so affected by the bullying.
‘I was confronting the 12-year-old me, having the courage to tell this fellow he’d done a number on me.’
“I was confronting the 12-year-old me, having the courage to tell this fellow he’d done a number on me,” he says.
In November, the New Yorker ran a 10-page spread devoted to Kurzweil’s synopsis of the story. The story quickly became, he says, one of the magazine’s most widely read articles of the year. Hundreds of readers commented online, several of whom identified themselves as Aiglon alumni who had endured similar bullying — some at the hands of Cesar.
Charlie Aikman, a British-born Aiglon alum who now sells real estate in Charleston, S.C., contacted Kurzweil after the piece ran. He, too, thought he’d been the only one to suffer such bullying at the school.
“My first week, one boy blew his nose in my sheets and then gave me a black eye,” he recalls. “They used to hang me on the door handles by my underwear.”
The ordeal “affected my self-confidence for years,” says Aikman. When he went to college, “I was quite surprised that people actually liked me.”
Though he often spoke fondly of the skiing and camping trips he took at Aiglon, Aikman’s wife “always knew there was something about Aiglon I hated,” he says. After reading Kurzweil’s story, he handed it to his wife to read, and she finally understood.
Throughout his own ordeal, Kurzweil has maintained a steady sense of humor. His son loaded an app onto his cellphone that has one purpose: When you shake the phone, it makes a sound like a whip cracking.
Kurzweil rises to retrieve an antique wooden box from a corner of the stately living room in the house he shares with his wife, Francoise, and an aging yellow Lab named Indiana Jones. Inside the box, as he shows a visitor with some pride, is the internal mechanism of a player piano, refashioned into a storytelling scroll he dubbed the “Role Player.”
He built this cabinet of wonders while concocting characters for his second novel, who are themselves inventors. Working on the box when he should have been finishing the book, he rationalized it as “research.”
His first novel, the period piece “A Case of Curiosities,” also features a mechanical engineer.
“My novels are saturated with timekeeping and watchmaking,” Kurzweil admits, indulging in a little self-analysis. On his wrist is an Omega watch very similar to the one his father wore. It’s a gift from his wife and son.
It’s not exactly the same, he says. But it’s close enough.
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• Match Book: What to read nextJames Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.